Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail
An Alabama Recreational Masterpiece
Inducted in 2000
The largest golf course construction project ever undertaken anywhere is Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a dazzling collection of championship golf courses dotting Alabama’s landscape from Huntsville to Mobile.
The near-simultaneous completion on seven sites of 18 public golf courses was achieved — from designing to grassing — in less than three years. The golf trail is proving to be one of the most significant additions ever to the state’s business base. It is already drawing golfers from across the U.S., from 30-plus other countries, and from among the top ranks of pro players, as Trail facilities host the nationally televised Nike Tour Championship and the LPGA’s Aflac Champions Tour. An eighth facility, in Prattville, was added to the Trail this year, its 54 challenging holes bringing the total for the project to 378.
In Huntsville, Birmingham, Anniston/Gadsden, Auburn/Opelika, Prattville, Greenville, Dothan, and Mobile, municipalities, corporations, and private developers worked together to bring to fruition the brainchild of Dr. David Bronner, head of the state’s pension fund, and Mr. J. Robert Vaughan Jr., who formed SunBelt Golf Corporation to build and operate the Trail facilities. Each site comprises donated lands; funds that did not need earmarking for property acquisition instead supplied the industry’s leading experts to create layouts that will remain “technology proof” well into the next century.
Legendary golf architect Robert Trent Jones, designer of hundreds of courses worldwide, created each Golf Trail facility to partake of the natural topography: mountain, marsh, farm field, sand. The project is “one of the greatest achievements of my life…probably the most magnificent courses I’ve ever designed,” Jones said.
The Trail offers more than 100 miles of golf in all. During construction, some 700 pieces of heavy equipment were at work at one time. More than 5,000 acres were drained or irrigated, and more than 5,000 acres were landscaped. Close to 40 lakes were built, as were 300,000-plus square feet of clubhouses and other buildings. Eight parking lots and 120 miles of concrete cart pathways were other elements of the project. Environmental issues involving wetlands and municipal reservoirs were in need of sound solutions. Before SunBelt’s Golf Trail, the largest such project tackled by a single company consisted of four courses, which were built over seven years. Eighteen courses in less than three years are an engineering feat that will not soon be eclipsed.
In 1993, Golf Digest rated two of the Trail’s courses as the top new public courses in America; the editors repeated this honor in 1994, as additional Trail facilities were opened. Also in 1994, the Golf Trail was named the best public golf facility in the country by Diversions Magazine. When Golf Digest ranked Alabama’s courses, both public and private, in 1995, five of the top 10 belonged to the Golf Trail. Frequent Flyer Magazine listed the Trail as one of the 10 best trips to make worldwide (1994) and the Trail has received front-page coverage in the Boston Globe, Miami Herald, and other newspapers. The Cincinnati Inquirer wrote, “Alabama’s 100 miles of golf stands on par with the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge or the Interstate Highway System.”
The Trail was funded by the Retirement Systems of Alabama, whose investment philosophy was “The stronger the Retirement Systems can make Alabama, the stronger the RSA will be.” Here is but one statistic to show the state’s improving position: Before the Golf Trail was created, the public courses in Alabama were ranked 48th nationally; today, says the National Golf Foundation, the state is in the top 10.